NORTH AUGUSTA — Ronald Williams stretched his entire 6-foot-2, 221-pound frame to break up a key fourth-down pass with under a minute to play, and it seemed the entire city of North Augusta let out a collective sigh of relief.
After a regular season full of blowout wins and impressive offensive performances, North Augusta had to rely heavily on its defense to hold on in the first round of the Class AAAA Division II state playoffs.
The 27-20 victory came only after J.L. Mann’s final possession stalled at midfield on fourth and 2 with 58 seconds left.
The close call shocked the heavily favored Yellow Jackets and prompted head coach Dan Pippin to remind his team of the bigger picture.
“Don’t put your head down like we lost,” he said in the postgame huddle. “We didn’t lose.”
North Augusta (11-1) advanced to the state quarterfinals by fighting off a team led by J.L. Mann head coach Brian Strickland, who spent the previous eight seasons on the North Augusta coaching staff.
Strickland’s familiarity with the offense, coupled with cold conditions that hampered the Yellow Jackets’ passing game, made for a nail-biting night for the home team.
Junior quarterback Tyrell Hillary, making his first
postseason start, struggled with accuracy, completing just 7 of 17 passes. Twice he overthrew top receiver Montez McGuire for what would have been touchdown passes.
“It was kind of difficult, because we had to change everything a little because of their coach and it was cold,” Hillary said. “It was really cold. I went through about 100 hand warmers.”
McGuire also threw a late interception that helped set up J.L. Mann for a potential fourth-quarter rally.
“We go feast or famine throwing the ball,” Pippin said. “But this was his first playoff start, so it was a good learning experience. I feel like it was a good learning experience for a lot of kids tonight. We’ll get the passing game going. I’m not worried about it.”
The Yellow Jackets relied on star tailback Vinny Miller heavily, giving the ball to the area’s leading rusher 34 times. The senior scored twice and tallied 249 rushing yards. Both scores came in the first half to give North Augusta a 20-6 halftime lead.
Pippin gambled and missed on fourth down deep in North Augusta’s own territory early in the third quarter, and J.L. Mann took advantage by scoring three plays later. Quarterback Ryne Strickland’s second touchdown pass of the game brought the visiting team to within a touchdown.
North Augusta reclaimed a two-score lead with the second of McGuire’s two rushing touchdowns late in the third quarter. J.L. Mann kicked its offensive into gear late but came up short despite the efforts of Ryne Strickland, who attended North Augusta until his father became coach at J.L. Mann. The junior completed 15 of 26 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns.
North Augusta sealed the win when its defense produced stops on two of the Patriots’ three fourth-quarter possessions.
“We didn’t just rely on the defense at times, it was all the time tonight,” Pippin said. “We know we’ve got to do better than this or it’s going to be a short playoff run. We will. We’ll do better.”
The No. 5 Yellow Jackets will advance to the state quarterfinals and play host to No. 13 South Florence, which upset No. 4 West Florence.